24 November 2011

The Authentic World

In Arequipa I rent a little room at the Hostal Regis [1]; cheap, comfortable with plenty of character (French colonial, apparently), and like most hostels in this range, slightly run down. A little wooden writing table sits against one wall; two simple chairs, the bed and and night table make up the rest of the furniture. The only thing on the pale pink walls other than the usual grimy marks is a mirror, which I try to avoid. The white ceiling has cracks and water stains; the floor is old, polished wood. The room feels well-used — comfortable and cosy and with its little desk it feels like the kind of place I could settle down and work hard at writing.

But Arequipa offers little other than a place to relax for a day. For others, the churches, the monastery, the other architectural works, the ascent of Volcan Misti, the tours to Colca Canyon and other places must seem like enough for days of exploration and excitement; I, on the other hand, prefer to watch the actual life of the city, the present taking place among the remains of the past. Being crammed in a minibus with others to travel for two days to stand shoulder to shoulder in a crowd of strangers for a brief view of condors (which I might see in Patagonia in far more preferable circumstances) doesn't appeal, and while the mountains around Arequipa have a character of their own, after Huaraz they seem low and muted. Here I've enjoyed my room and the good cafés and the walks around town, but I want to keep moving; the restlessness drives me on; Patagonia calls. I decide to continue to Puno in the morning.

From where does this restlessness arise? Was Chatwin right when he speculated humans are essentially nomadic? Sometimes the restlessness feels like a compulsion, but I wonder whether I'm travelling towards something or running from it. But from what, or whom?

Earlier in the afternoon I'd visited La Canasta for a coffee and struck up a conversation with a Canadian in his seventies. Bob enjoyed referring to himself as "the old goat", emphasising the phrase with an impish grin. He wore a Captain Ahab beard and had been well tanned by the Peruvian sun. He'd first come to Peru almost thirty years ago as an irrigation engineer working on a massive project funded by the World Bank and ever since, he'd been spending half the year in Canada and half here. Converting the desert into productive agricultural land still continues, he said. I didn't say how I felt deserts needed protection from development just as much as many other land types, but did say how beautiful I'd found the deserts I'd passed through in Peru. He seemed to understand that.

But who benefits from these irrigation schemes, I asked, the local people or the big companies?
He leaned forward and tapped the table with a long, tanned finger. You've hit the nail right on the head, he said, and went on to explain how the locals worked so hard for so little for the companies reaping the profits.
If you complain they just tell you to go and find work somewhere else — if you can.
They walk such long distances, he added, and described the places they lived. I recognised some — the kind I'd seen from the bus, the kind that had filled me with horror.
Some of them don't even have roofs, Bob said. Although retired, he worked with local communities, trying to improve their lot. Mostly irrigation, I think. The changes he'd seen saddened him. When he'd arrived, Colca had been beautiful; now the changes were too much, too fast. He'd tried to tell some of them, no, you don't need electricity here, but it was no good, they all wanted electricity and TVs and other modern things.

Later I wondered how he reconciled his desire to help improve the lives of the people he clearly loved while not wanting their lives to change. Perhaps he wanted only certain changes — those that fulfilled his own desire to help but not those that allowed those people much greater control over their own destinies.
He'd admitted his preferences didn't matter, and when he said he wouldn't be around much longer he sounded almost as if he relished the idea of his own extinction — perhaps because he wouldn't see the changes that had already begun to sadden him. I liked him, liked his compassion and his love for the place and its people, and I hope his work remains valued, that he's remembered as someone who made a difference for the right reasons.

The bus crawls out of Arequipa with the air conditioning turned off; already the air has turned hot and stuffy. A man with uncoordinated limbs and a severe speech impediment stands at the front of the bus and with great effort manages to deliver a long speech, of which I understand a few words. He starts moving down the aisle, forcing lollies on the passengers. Later he'll return collecting payment or the uneaten lollies. This is a way of life on all but the high-end buses everywhere I've travelled so far in South America.

We stop to pick up two women with a huge load of boxes of produce and bales of grass and straw. Quarter of an hour later we stop again to load a pile of enormous blue bags of potatoes. People on the bus begin complaining angrily about the painfully slow progress; someone starts stamping his feet and others take it up, drumming on the floor, shaking the bus. The driver berates the potato loaders — ineffectively, of course. Patience and acceptance seem unusual here — at traffic lights, for example, the moment the lights turn green horns begin blaring. An instant response isn't good enough; it's as if the person in the car at the head of the queue is to blame for the person further back not being at the head of the queue.

Outside Arequipa the conductor moves through the bus, closing the windows and at last turning on the air conditioning. We pick up speed and I gaze out at the stark mountains where high up a little snow still clings. There at least I can see no sign of humans. High mountains can be a last refuge because they offer nothing material, nothing that can be exploited. Yet even those mountains can sometimes be desecrated; not satisfied with revering them, we mark them with the signs of our veneration — crosses on summits, swastikas painted on rocks. Sometimes even the non-material gifts of mountains become a reason for leaving our marks — for example, while delighting in the ascent of a difficult climb, we leave a line of bolts on a buttress — and sometimes we desecrate simply in the attempt to immortalise ourselves — graffiti aren't confined to fences, buildings and railway sidings.

Yet this is how the world is. In Puno in the evening while talking with Stephen from DC I mention the idea I'd discussed with Bob — that in a sense everything is authentic. I point to the wood-fired pizza oven where we wait for our orders. That's not part of traditional Peruvian culture, I say. He grins. I explain how I think cultures can't be static, how I admire more than regret the way Peru and other places have capitalised on their history and culture while also providing what the tourists want — wood-fired pizza, for example (but not authentic pizza, as my Italian friends later point out — what's being offered is the abomination from the United States). Yes, the loss of traditional ways of life saddens me. Here in Peru it's still strong in places but it's inevitably weakening and will eventually survive only as scheduled shows for tourists. But despite the protestations of the romantics, traditional ways of life were and are hard and consequently short. Who can blame those forced to live those kinds of lives for seeking a more comfortable existence? Whether the modern lifestyle really lives up to the expectations of those who desire it is questionable — I suspect mostly it doesn't, but at least those seeking it can hope it might. Nevertheless, the gentle, wood-fired-pizza guy in jeans and T-shirt (and who looks disconcertingly like Willem Dafoe) is to me just as authentic as the women in their colourful, traditional dress and cowboy hats — this is the authenticity of the present.

I'm not sure Stephen's convinced. I doubt Bob was. I doubt many others would be, particularly those who prefer to call themselves travellers not tourists and claim to be searching for authenticity. Still, for the moment I'll stick to my assertion that what we think of as authentic is mostly the unpreservable past being left behind by the present, and what we think of as fake is often part of the authentic present.

At ten to midday the conductor starts the video to satisfy the demands of those like the man next to me who apparently see the journey as a necessary evil — those who have been reading newspapers, playing portable video games, sleeping, talking on phones, and ignoring the beautiful, sere, stony desert through which we're passing. Am I the only one who loves these tenacious, flowering cacti, the shrivelled plants, the high mountains under a sky streaked with mare's tails, this land like a gasp?

At 12:18 p.m. we pass a sign saying "Zona de Vicuñas", and there, a short way off in the desert, a vicuña lifts its head. Lithe, golden-brown, the pale under its belly extending a little way further up its body. Further on, four more, then more still. Does anyone else see them, even when we pass a family right next to the road?

The bus pauses at the Putahuasi pay station, then drives on. A dust devil, swirling; a small, simple shed with grey walls and a yellow thatched roof; many vicuñas; a few llamas; mountains on the encircling horizon. Soon after, we pass a 22-wheel lorry on its side, a similar lorry waiting while men transfer gas bottles from the overturned truck. This time, everyone on the bus gawks.

The sense of altitude increases. We stop briefly at Imata near a strange monument of a flamingo with outstretched wings. A caracara flies past and another perches on a rock as we leave the tiny town. I feel so high I never want to descend; coming down will be as figurative as literal. I love this landscape: bleak but not unrelentingly arid; small waterways, half stream, half tarn, in shallow valleys; the hills of the altiplano rolling gently towards the sky — the sky, through which we drive. Somewhere in all this emptiness we pass a small cemetery crowded with crosses tilted at various angles and enclosed by a low adobe wall. A sign says 4528 m. Can we go any higher?

Apparently not. We begin the gradual descent, past a lake among yellow-brown hills. A small flock of flamingoes feeds near the shore. More lakes  — Andean geese, coots, teal, more flamingoes. Another accident — a van rear-ended by a truck —  and again the bus passengers turn from the dreadful video.

A caracara sits like a sentinel on a rock above the road. We stop in a small, quiet town — the sort where I feel like getting off just because I know no one and am known by no one; the kind that offers the dream of vanishing forever. After the bus has set down and picked up passengers the conductor opens the vents in the roof and as the bus picks up speed the wind rushes and howls in a way utterly fitting this landscape.

But someone gets up and closes the vent.

At Juliaca the light comes from another time, another world. On the outskirts the busy streets also appear curiously deserted, the contradiction disorienting. This is how one might imagine the streets of a city after some catastrophe — an epidemic, perhaps — with a few survivors mingling with the ghosts of those who no longer live there. Further in, the town looks like a scene from Blade Runner, with people everywhere, jostling, dodging tricycle and motorcycle taxis, squeezing past innumerable stalls, somehow functioning amid the chaos. Everyone seems to be welding, fixing things, making things in small dim workshops or outside on the dusty, potholed streets. We drive past an open shed, dark, full of big carcases hanging on hooks; past a man in a green and yellow dragon suit striding along the street, clutching the dragon's head while his own head hangs between hunched shoulders as if depressed. For all the horror of the place — almost everything the opposite of where I feel most at home — I like Juliaca, or at least find it fascinating. Here I could be lost and anonymous; for the first time, a plane flying overhead seems like a link to a world I'm not ready to rejoin.

I still don't know whether I'm running away or travelling forward, and even less idea who or what drives me.

A flock of Andean gulls with their beautiful black faces. Straw stooked as it was in New Zealand before I was born. Three ostriches (not rheas) in a small paddock as we leave Juliaca, one of the strangest places through which I've passed.

Finally we reach Puno, where I take a taxi to the Hostal Los Piños. On the way, a rat scampers in a street, but it turns out to be only a brown plastic bag swirled by the wind. Rats, I suspect, will outlive us, but perhaps these ubiquitous scraps of plastic, the symbol of our dependence on oil and our wilful rejection of caring for our only home, have become the new rats of the modern world.

I think I prefer the old rats — the authentic rats.

1. “Hostal” is the usual spelling in South America. 

Photos (I have no photographs from the bus journey from Arequipa to Puno. These words, with photographs from elsewhere, will have to suffice):
1. A small village in Bolivia, from the train between Oruro and Uyuni.
2. The road to Chimbote from Trujillo, in northern Peru.

3. The Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
4. Salt pan just outside Oruro, from the train to Uyuni
5. Flute player in the Valley of the Moon, La Paz. Clearly not a vertigo sufferer.
6. Caracara on one of the summits of the Muela del Diablo near La Paz
7. Coastal desert on the road from Trujillo to Chimbote.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


robin andrea said...

I've been thinking about this post most of the day, Pete. The authenticity of the present. Yes, that so succinctly expresses where we are now. Lately I've been struck by the voices of elders who know their time here is short, but who consider themselves lucky because they won't have to see what will eventually become of us. It's as inevitable as the remotest corners of the world wanting electricity and TVs. The authenticity of the present cannot be undone, not without an unfathomable upheaval. Ten thousand years ago we made a wrong turn and have traveled this path to now. There is no way back.

Sorry for sounding so pessimistic, but I sincerely lament what we have done to ourselves and our planet.

pohanginapete said...

Robin, no need to apologise for what you see as pessimism (others I know would see it as realism). I really appreciate your thoughtful comment, and like you with this post, I've been thinking about it for some time.
    At one level I can understand that feeling of not wanting to see what happens, but I find it difficult to feel similarly. Wondering has always been important to me, and curiosity about the future remains compelling; I want to know what happens, even if it's not what I wish for.
    I'm tempted to fall back on a corollary of the argument in the post — essentially, that what is, is, and whether it's right or wrong is largely beside the point; what matters most is how we deal with the present as it becomes the future, but I admit I'm not entirely convinced by that. Still, while it's true there is no way back, there is a way forward, and at least because I have young friends who will have to live in this world, I feel an obligation to do what I can to leave it at least a little better and to help them to love what remains. To abandon hope, to despair, won't help them.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

just flicking back through the photos I'm as impressed as ever not just by the scenery, but your eye for framing an image

My favourite though is the man stood on the rock with his flute

Now that's what i call rock music (groan)

pohanginapete said...

Thanks, Hungry Pixie! I've heard worse than that, too — in fact, if I'd thought of it, I'd have used it for the caption ;^)

butuki said...

Last night I had just finished my run and was walking the rest of the way home. It was late and the streets were mostly empty so there was a sense of exhilaration and being alive while passing trees and gardens and windy paths. At one point up ahead I discerned what looked like a snake lying on the pavement. A thrill went through my heart at the site of wildlife.... only to be dashed when it turned out to be a long strip of plastic. My first feeling was that of outrage at being cheated of rejoicing in life. Then sadness at the deadness of this world I live in, all held enthralled by human vanity.

Avus said...

Your 4th image brought to mind the McKenzie country on South Island, N.Z., Pete.
Sounds like you are having an immensely satisfying, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Miguel, I know what you mean, and occasionally I've felt something similar. (In fact, on the Galápagos I saw [real] snakes twice; the first sighting thrilled me, the second saddened me because the snake had been road-killed.) However, mostly it works the other way with me — I often find myself rejoicing at the resilience of life when I see a small animal or even a "weed" surviving or thriving in a grim, dirty, littered city.
    I guess I've been fortunate though, because I've lived much of my life in places with ample wildness, including wild lives. Even now, at the End of the World, I find myself rejoicing in the sight of Dolphin gulls picking through the stinking black ooze at the water's edge or tossing rubbish out of the bins ;^)

Avus, so many of the landscapes throughout South America remind me of parts of New Zealand — here in Patagonia the resemblance is so striking it's almost eerie. I have to remind myself not to dwell on the comparisons and instead to focus on where I am.
    You're right about the journey being immensely satisfying, too :^)

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
Well, the Gnats have been voted back in, though 48% of eligible voters did not vote, so you will certainly find plenty of authentic rats scurrying about here when you get back. Mauri Ora!

pohanginapete said...

Don't remind me, Robb. I followed the result from over here. What amazes me is the lack of insight of the political commenters, who don't seem to realise the reason for the exceptionally low voter turnout was almost certainly that most people saw the result as foregone — a sort of "so why bother" attitude, and low turnouts typically hurt Labour. Polls that suggest a walkover tend to be self-fulfilling.
    Just been looking at your blog, Robb, and you have some beautiful photos on the latest post. Sounds like a wonderful trip; I'll look forward to joining you and John on something similar when I'm back.

Anonymous said...

Pete, I think Chatwin is right. Maybe not everyone is nomadic but I for one am. Not sure about traveling fwd or back... more like living in the moment. But perhaps on a deeper level there is some escapism in the equation?

pohanginapete said...

Maureen, since I wrote that about being unsure about travelling forward or back, I thought it doesn't accurately reflect my general mood, which is better expressed in the quotation "Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home" (I used it as the basis for a post a long time ago). Perhaps the uncertainty creeps in from time to time, though — these states change continuously.
    Great to spend some time with you and Eric in such a wonderful place. Looking forward to more such opportunities :^)

Leonie said...

I wonder whether I'm travelling towards something or running from it. But from what, or whom?
I often wonder about this myself. No-one else in my family has travelled as extensively as I have. In fact, some of them have lived in the same house since before I left school! Is it a need to see new things, or from some strange feeling that 'this place' isn't IT and I'm meant to be somewhere else? And what if I never find that magical somewhere?!?

I watched a movie recently called Midnight in Paris. Where the main actor is going on about the golden age being in the past. And, when he gets there and meets other people, they believe the golden age was in a previous time...

Perhaps you have it right Pete when you say that what we think of as authentic is mostly the unpreservable past being left behind by the present, and what we think of as fake is often part of the authentic present. It's all a reality, so there has to be some truth to it, even if it's not a truth we particularly love (or wish to be true).

pohanginapete said...

Leonie, thanks for the thoughts. I think you've hit on something important when you wonder about the feeling that "'this place' isn't IT". That strikes a chord. If nowhere can be perfect, are we condemned to live our lives always longing for somewhere else, somewhere unattainable? If so, perhaps the only solution to that restlessness and discontent is to learn to be contented — but then, where do we find the incentive to improve?

I'll see if I can track down Midnight in Paris. I've heard of solid research that confirms that kind of "rosy retrospection", and suspect it's far more common than we realise. I know I think fondly of my time in India, yet have to admit that after five months there I flew out with a sense of relief. But maybe that's one reason I'd like to return — to find out whether my attitude and appreciation has changed after having the time to reflect, or whether my subconscious mind's simply overemphasising the good and blocking the less enjoyable.

vegetablej said...

Hi pete:

Not sure if you're home or not yet, but Happy New Year!

This post is filled with so many great observations and ideas that I had to read it twice. Usually I find it hard to comment because I want to talk about every idea at length but get so far off on a winding path that I never get from one point to the next. When you think of it, it's wonderful to be able write things that create so much inspiration.:)

I'll try to focus on just two points. I wondered about the comment about knowing why you traveled -- perhaps you explained it yourself when you said you were filled with a sense of wonder about the world ( I just read an article that said that all people who live a long time share that. :) And when you travel you are lifted above the mundane into a state of grace, no everyday drudgery, new things to see, new people to meet, someone else doing the cooking and cleaning-- who wouldn't like that?

The second thing was about the plastic "animals". I like to say to people I know that we are gradually transforming the planet Earth into plastic. How many more years it will take to complete the job I don't know, but the folly of selling our birthright for a mess of potage-- in individually wrapped plastic portions-- is so ludicrous that it could only have been thought of by humans.

Sure hope enough of us will get angry enough to do something radical -- like stop using plastic anythings. In fact, I think I just discovered my New Year's resolution.

pohanginapete said...

VJ, it's always a joy to hear something I've written has got someone thinking hard. Thanks!
    I'm sure you're right about travelling lifting one above the mundane. I'd add that at a simple level, one of the great joys of travelling is the simplicity of it — the major decisions are mostly basic, like deciding what to eat, how long to stay in a place, where to go next, how to get there, etc. Mostly they're short-term and not critical (choosing one hostel over another hardly amounts to a life-changing decision). While that kind of simplicity could be achieved when one's more settled, somehow it doesn't seem so easy then. I also love the feeling of being able to carry everything I own with me in a pack on my back — I feel self-contained, self-reliant.
    Eliminating plastics is probably impossible in practice, but reducing our use of plastics seems entirely feasible. Whether we can reduce it enough (and quickly enough) to improve the quality of our environment might be difficult — but if we don't try, it won't happen.
    Happy New Year, VJ. (BTW, I got back to the Pohangina Valley a week before Christmas.)

Anne said...

A fragment of line from Sylvia Plath popped into my head -- "the zoo of the new ..." Perhaps we travel in pursuit of the novelty we felt as children in everything we encountered then. Perhaps we are running away from the tedium of having seen and done the same thing year after year that comes with age. What I love about your writing is that it makes one think and wonder about all these things.

Now I am caught up with you. I have missed many of your posts with the stresses and activity of the so-called "holidays". I'm glad they are over for this year.

pohanginapete said...

Anne, I'm so pleased you've enjoyed the writing. Thanks :^)
    Trying to see things the way children do — as novel and exciting — seems like an excellent way of approaching life in general. Sometimes in town I try to look around as if I'm seeing the place for the first time, and I'm often surprised to realise that mostly my vision's very narrow. Seems like a useful exercise — or at least interesting.
    Best wishes for a more relaxed and enjoyable New Year :^)